Proud, self-reliant and fiercely independent, Cuddy soon realises she’s going to need help caring for the women on the arduous six-week journey and, chancing upon no good, claim-jumping, army deserter George Briggs (Jones) in the process of being lynched, she saves his life and hires his services to ride shotgun and guide them through the wilderness back to civilisation. But their journey is fraught with danger and even as the resentment and mistrust between Cuddy and Briggs softens into a mutual appreciation, tragedy waits…
“What is there to live for on the frontier in 1882? We live in a terrible place in time. The American West is a disgusting, awful, dirty, dangerous place. Everything out here that’s not you, wants to kill you. Outlaws…angry drunk people… scorned hookers… hungry animals… diseases… major AND minor injuries… Indians… the weather… You can get killed just going to the bathroom! I take my life in my hands every time I walk out to my outhouse.” So says Seth MacFarlane in his hit-and-miss comedy Western A Million Ways To Die In The West.
Set some 30 years earlier, MacFarlane’s rant about the dangers of pioneer life are as succinct a summing up of Jones’ uneven, downbeat, proto-feminist meditation on madness and Manifest Destiny, The Homesman, as you’re liable to see. Life is a tough, alienating, hardscrabble existence in Jones’ unromantic vision of the Old West and faced with violence, diphtheria epidemics, dead children, rape, infanticide, rampant misogyny and poverty is it any wonder that the women of The Homesman retreat into madness, self-harm and suicide?
Episodic and wildly uneven in tone, veering from tragedy to farce to nuanced character drama with a clang, there are shades of True Grit and John Huston’s The African Queen in Briggs and Cuddy’s odd couple pairing, Jones essentially playing the cantankerous old coot he always plays these days and having enormous fun with it, but the film’s greatest strength lies in its women, Swank delivering a subtle, affecting portrait of loneliness and quiet desperation as the spinster who’s fast becoming an old maid while Gummer, Richter and Otto are reminiscent of the mad women in a Japanese horror film, Otto in particular could have stepped down from the screen during a viewing of Onibaba, the moment when she murders her baby by matter-of-factly dropping him down the outhouse hole may be the most chilling moment of cinema I’ve witnessed all year and, while it perhaps lacks the austerity of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and would probably fail the infamous Bechdel Test, there’s a sensitivity and delicate power in Jones’ evocation of the lives of his characters. It’s a quality sadly lacking in the men of the film, brutal buffoons practically to a man (Jones no exception), with Tim Blake Nelson particularly creepy as a passing plains rapist while James Spader should probably be horsewhipped for his faith “Faith and Begorrah!” comedy Irish landowner.
Perhaps The Homesman’s biggest problem is its familiarity; the film may follow Cuddy and Briggs from West to East, the traditional pioneer route in reverse, but you’ve ridden this trail before. You know the odd couple will find a grudging respect, even love, for one another. You know the ostensible bad man will find a measure of redemption through caring for others. You know better than to accept a ride from Tim Blake Nelson. It’s an exercise that’s as comfortable and careworn as old slippers by the fire. But its power lies in its bleakness, its unsentimental vision of the hardship and fortitude of frontier life.
There’s a moment as they set out on their journey that’s emblematic of the film, when Cuddy insists on naming the mules pulling their rolling Bedlam, Grace and Redemption. In the landscape of The Homesman, both are hard-won and fleeting.